Solar Flyby

Earlier this year, NASA's Parker Solar Probe flew extremely close to the Sun.

Its approach brought it within 15 million miles — far closer than the planet Mercury — from the Sun's surface, traveling at 213,200 miles per hour, which is the fastest any man-made spacecraft has ever traveled.

And today, we get to see a glimpse of what the Sun's surface and outer atmosphere looks like at that distance.jup

"Parker is an exploration mission — the potential for new discoveries is huge," says Nour Raouafi, Parker Solar Probe project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University.

Here's the picture in its full glory:

Luckily, NASA has some clarifying words about what we're looking at. The image shows a so-called coronal streamer crossing the "east limb of the Sun."  Oh, and that big white spot in the middle? That's Mercury, in the background.

The corona is the Sun's outer atmosphere, which is visible to the untrained eye during a total solar eclipse. Coronal streamers occur when more than the usual quantity of solar particles are released from the Sun's solar winds.

The Parker Solar Probe had to travel very quickly to get such a clear view. The Sun rotates once every 27 days, meaning that any spacecraft near it has to keep up, especially given the Sun's massive size.

Some Big Questions

NASA's Parker Solar Probe is trying to answer some pretty big questions about our star: why is the corona so hot compared to the surface below it? How does solar wind accelerate so quickly? How do the Sun's most energetic particles shoot away from the Sun at more than half the speed of light?

Thanks to the Parker Solar Probe, we will soon know a lot more about the underlying physics of that big blob of hot plasma at the center of our solar system.

Editor's note: an earlier version of this article misstated which planet was brightly visible in the image. It has been updated.

READ MORE: NASA's Parker Solar Probe got closer to the sun than ever before [Engadget]

More on the solar probe: NASA's solar probe just broke two world records

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